Guide To Writing Lyrics

The music for a song (usually) consists of two melodies. Call them melody 1 and melody 2.

The lyrics for the song we will write will have only four stanzas. Each stanza will have four lines.

Use the same rhyming pattern for all four stanzas. For example, if you use (the very hard to do) rhyming pattern of AABA, this means that lines 1, 2, and 4 of each stanza rhyme. An easier rhyming pattern is AABB, which means lines 1 and 2 rhyme, and also 3 and 4, but lines 2 and 3 don't rhyme.

Don't use the same rhyme syllable(s) for each stanza. For example if the first stanza uses bye, dry, and why for the rhymes don't use this rhyme syllable for the other stanzas. Use another rhyme such as bear, fair, and their to rhyme another stanza.

The first, second and fourth stanzas tell a story. Stanza three either tells the same story in different words, or says something pertinent about the story.

Melody 1 is used for stanzas 1, 2, and 4. This means that Melody 1 is heard three times when the song is played. Melody 2 is used for stanza three and is heard only once in the song.

Notice that since Melody 1 is used as the music for three stanzas, the
corresponding lines of each of these stanzas (1, 2, and 4) must have the same emphasis pattern. The music does not change for the corresponding lines of the different stanzas. For example, if line one of stanza one has eight syllables, then line 1 of stanza two, and line 1 of stanza 4 must also have 8 syllables. The emphasis patterns of these lines must also correspond.

These are guidelines and not hard rules. If you can follow these rules then you know how to write lyrics. After that, if there is a reason, the rules can be broken. If you break the rules, you should break them because using the rules does not produce the effect you want.

To simply the lyric writing I suggest the following:

  1. Outline the song, i.e., decide what will be said in each stanza
  2. Write the lyrics for only one stanza which uses Melody 1. Usually it is best to start with stanza one, but stanza two or four will do just as well.
  3. Write the lyrics for stanza three.
  4. Send me your results from 1, 2 and 3 above. I will write music for Melody 1 and Melody 2 and send you a tape of it. I will have the music for Melody 1 repeated many times on this tape. Use the music to write the lyrics for the incomplete stanzas. Voila! We have a song, (well at least a good start towards one).

Here are the some of the most important steps in writing a song. You should work on only one step at a time.

Step one: Get a title for the song. You should use the title several times in the song so it should be interesting. Finding a catchy song title goes a long way toward creating a good song.

Step two: Try to also get a short phrase that has a rhythmic beat or idea and repeat it often in the song. This is called a hook. The listener usually will only remember either the song title or the hook. So you see it is better if both are there for the listener to remember.

Step three: The first few words of the song are also very important. If you don't get the listener interested immediately, you've lost your chance. He'll tune you out.

Step four: In a sentence or two write what the song is about.

Step five: Write the first stanza and send it to me for comment, or to put music to it. Stop there. I'll send you the next steps for creating our song.

Try to get some inner rhymes. These aren't necessary but they are the mark of a good lyricist. The most famous is Cole Porter's, with six in a row.

I* get no kick in a plane
Fly*ing too high* with some guy* in the sky*
Is my i*dea of nothing to do
But I* get a kick out of you.

* are the same sounds.

Pretty neat. Getting just one or two inner rhymes is a feat. If they come, good, but strive mainly for the end of the line rhymes.

Here is my analysis of Beautiful Dreamer by Stephen Foster.

First Melody:         Beautiful dreamer,              (5)
                      Wake unto me,                   (4)
                      Starlight and dew drops         (5)
                      Are waiting for thee.           (5)

Repeat First Melody:  Sounds of the rude world,       (5)
                      Heard in the day,               (4)
                      Lull'd by the moonlight         (5)
                      Have all pass'd away.           (5)

Second Melody:        Beautiful dreamer,              (5)
                      Queen of my song,               (4)
                      List while I woo thee,          (5)
                      With soft melody.               (5)

Repeat First Melody:  Gone are the cares of           (5)
                      Life's busy throng              (4)
                      Beautiful dreamer,              (5)
                      Awake unto me.                  (5)

The melody pattern for this song is AABA. He doesn't consistently rhyme. The rhyming pattern appears to be ABCB for the first melody. The second melody rhyming pattern is ABCC (and isn't too good). He lost the rhyming in the last stanza. One of the reasons the song works because the title is repeated three times without being forced. Also there are internal rhymes or near ones that don't appear forced, like Dream and Queen, wake and wait and awake. Song and throng are false rhymes. False rhymes are those that look good on paper, but don't rhyme when spoken. In parenthesis are the number of syllables in each line. The syllables in the second melody did not have to match those in the first melody. The third stanza in this case sums up what the song is about.

Just for a little comparison, here is a Verse/Chorus form.

 Verse:          Oh, I come from Alabama
                With a manjo on my knee,
                And I'm goin' to Lou'siana,
                My true love for to see;
                Oh, it rained all night the day I left
                The weather it was dry,
                The sun so hot I froze to death;
                Susanna, don't you cry.

Chorus:         Oh, Susanna,
                Don't you cry for me.
                For I come from Alabama
                With my banjo on my knee.

Verse:          Late last night,
                The other day,
                When everything was still,
                I thought I saw Susanna
                Coming down the hill.
                The buckwheat cake was in her hand
                A tear was in her eye.
                I'm goin' to lou'siana
                Susanna, don't you cry.

Chorus:         Oh, Susanna,
                Don't you cry for me.
                For I come from Alabama
                With my banjo on my knee.

Many popular songs use this pattern and repeats it one or more times, with new lyrics in the verse and the same lyrics in the chorus.

I hope this is a help and tells you something you didn't know.

Arnold Schulman is a composer and keyboard player living in Sedona, Arizona.

His music crosses many musical genres, and he finds satisfaction in writing music for the creative challange.

Arnold's first release is "Sound Paintings of Planet Earth, Volume One: Hawaii". You may download sound clips and get ordering information from his web site.

Arnold Schulman